The Eucharist and Incarnation

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 12, 2005

I responded to a post from Jeremy at  Jeremy shared some very interesting thoughts about being missional, incarnational, and engaging in the sacraments.  I might be over-simplifying, but his general argument is that if we are to be truly incarnational, then we need to engage in a very real experience of the sacraments; if our view of the sacraments is too weak, then we run the risk of a disembodies spirituality.  To be incarnational is to engage in the fleshiness of sacrament, rather than just being word-centered (in my mind, many many evangelical churches make Scripture reading the only real sacrament…a non participatory sacrament that can lend itself to a sort of gnosticism).  Here’s what my response was to his post:

I’ve grown up in low church settings, not liturgical settings, so my perspectives on the centrality of the eucharist and liturgy is biased.  I don’t think one has to tie the idea of incarnation to liturgical sacrament.  A good case can be made for seeing relationships as sacramental.  Miroslav Volf seems to go in this direction in his book "After Our Likeness." So do the anabaptists.  By seeing the gathering as sacramental (and therefore making the rituals sacramental by proxy), you can have a real physical sense of incarnation. 

Eucharist is profoundly pneumatological.  When we share in the meal together (many liturgical churches take away the sense of togetherness in their celebration of eucharist), we are experiencing Christ’s presence by his Spirit–not because he is physically present in the bread and wine, but that he is physically present in US.  When we eat the meal, he is eating the meal with us, as he did with his followers…only now we, his followers, is his Body.  This understanding is very fleshy, sacramental, and very missional.  But it is also generally a low church understanding.

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7 Responses to “The Eucharist and Incarnation”

  1. A Different Perspective on January 12th, 2005 1:51 pm

    Physical Worship

    I confess, I recently went to a church service. It doesn’t happen very often (did I go to one in 2004?). At first, I was excited because part of the reason I wanted to go was to particpate in the eucharist, and I saw a table with the elements.


  2. jeremy on January 13th, 2005 12:36 pm


    The thing that I don’t understand about your response (and I say that not to be critical, I truly don’t understand) is what you mean by “he is physically present in US” and “he is eating the meal with us, as he did with his followers.”

    If his presence is only pneumatological how is it physical? When you say “he is physically present in US” don’t you really mean “he is spritually present in us, and we are physically present”? To me, this is still inadequate for a truly incarnational church. It lends itself to the same quasi-gnosticism that you accuse evangelicals of (which, btw, is right on). There is still a dividing line between the spiritual and the physical.

    I may be misunderstanding you, but this doesn’t seem all that “fleshy” in the end.

  3. Van S on January 13th, 2005 5:21 pm

    I think ANY view will have a risk of disembodiment, since Christ isn’t present in his humanity. The only two viable views in my mind which can offer a robust physicality to the Eucharist is to say that Jesus is present in the bread and wine OR to say that he is present in the people. IF you go the route of transubstantiation, then you have to say that the substance of the bread and wine change into Jesus’ actual flesh. Scripture doesn’t seem to really go there…but it does talk about his Body all the time as the church. And as we, the community of Christ, worship him, we share in his divinity (partaking in the divine nature) and his humanity (I’m going along with Irenaus’ recapitulation view here). So in a very real sense the CHurch IS an extention of Christ’s physicality, as we make up a new humanity that is being conformed to Christ. I am essentially taking an Orthodox aproach to spirituality and eucharist and applying it to an anabaptist ecclesiology. I think this is a very important dialogue…and I’m just starting to work through this in my thinking, but I think there is real potential here in having incarnational spirituality that doesn’t require high church sacramentalism.

  4. jeremy on January 14th, 2005 8:41 pm

    1) I like this so far. Could you tease out the connections to the recapitulation theory more directly?

    2)By “high church sacramentalism” do you just mean transubstantiation or do you mean something broader or different?

  5. Van S on January 15th, 2005 12:39 am

    Irenaeus argues (as I understand it) that Jesus took on humanity in becoming a human…so that those who are in Christ might participate in Christ’s humanity. Jesus is the new Adam…those who are identified with the new Adam participate in a “new humanity.” John Zizioulas (an Orthodox thinker) would say that as we, the Church, participate in the divine nature in Christ, we are granted new being…an ecclesial being. Our substance changes as we enter into a transformative relationship(deification) with the Trinity through Christ. So, there is a real sense of “incarnation” as Christ is physically present through us, as a new humanity (the church), since we share in his new way of being human. This must be kept in tension, however, for there is a “not yet” to our current embodiement–we remain to be glorified.

    Orthodox and Catholic thinkers that are sympathetic to an Irenaen understanding put the eucharist in a central role to understanding this “partaking in the divine nature.” I don’t understand why this is required for the construct to work. It seems to me that one could still think this way, but say the way we “partake in the divine nature” is pneumatologically…that the presence of the Spirit in our lives causes our new way of being…and causes us to be incarnational. After all, Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit? Shouldn’t also the church be conceived in the same way?

    By “high church sacramentalism” I am including consubstantiation as well, but transubstantiation in particular.

  6. Fr. Dcn. Raphael on January 17th, 2005 11:46 am

    NIce blog!

    {{ A good case can be made for seeing relationships as sacramental.}}

    That is indeed the Orthodox perspective…all of life is sacramental…whatever God uses to communicate his grace, should be considered a sacremnet.

    Now of course we have the “seven sacraments.” But in my opinion, too many Orthodox writers have taken this Westernb “List mentality,” (which I can see as useful for teaching purposes) and make it “gospel.” Is not the burying of the dead “sacramental?” The reading of the PSalms? The raising of Children? etc, etc, etc.

    {{{IF you go the route of transubstantiation, then you have to say that the substance of the bread and wine change into Jesus’ actual flesh. Scripture doesn’t seem to really go there…but }}}

    REALLY? “This IS my body…This IS my blood… unless you EAT the body…”

    Why then do you suspect that many quite following Him at that point? It seems to me that they balked at the literalness of his words, just as we moderns do…..

  7. Van S on January 17th, 2005 12:31 pm

    True, the Bible DOES say that…but I’d rather emphasize the meriad of passages where the Church is seen as Christ’s embodiment…rather than the Eucharist. I’d be willing to say that thte Eucharist is a form of incarnation…but instead of going the route of saying that the Eucharist is the center of the church…that we experience God’s presence in the Eucharist primarily, and that presence constitutes the church, I would reverse it. The Eucharist expresses Christ’s presence because it is constituted by our gathering. In otherwords, the presence of Christ in the gathering gives substance to the act of Eucharist, rather than the act of eucharist giving the presence of Christ to the community.

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